(Cerf)ing the Internet: meet the man who helped build it

April 19th, 2018

Editor’s Note: Tonight, Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf will accept a Franklin Institute Award (alongside fellow inventor Robert E. Kahn) for enabling the internet by developing TCP/IP, the set of methods that allows effective communication between millions of computer networks. In the words of the Institute, “Every person who has ever sent an email, downloaded a webpage, or sent a photo to a friend owes a debt” to Vint and Robert. We sat down with Vint to learn more about his prestigious career, what’s yet to come, and what he may be best known for (his daily habit of wearing a three-piece suit).

Tell us about the job that you’ve set out to do at Google (as well as your unique title).

(Cerf)ing the Internet: meet the man who helped build it

When I first got the job at Google, I proposed to Larry and Sergey (Google’s founders) that my title should be “archduke.” They countered with “Chief Internet Evangelist,” and I was okay with that. My objective was, and still is, to get more internet out there. Google has been very effective in fulfilling that objective so far with CSquared and efforts for the Next Billion Users. But today only half the world’s population is online, and I’ve been told I’m not allowed to retire because my job is only half done.

What are some other things you’ve worked on at Google? In my years at Google, I’ve had the lucky freedom to stick my nose into pretty much anything. I’ve gotten very interested in the internet of things, and want to foster a deep awareness of what it takes to make those devices work well, while preserving safety, security and privacy.

Since my first day at Google, I’ve been passionate about making our products accessible to everyone, whether you have a hearing, vision or mobility problem (or something else). I’m hearing impaired—I’ve worn a hearing aid since I was 13—and my wife is deaf but uses two cochlear implants. Google has an entire team in place that looks after accessibility across all of our product areas.

Oh, another project I’ve been working on is Digital Vellum, to address my concern about the fragility of digital information. We store our information on various media (think of the evolution of floppy disks to external hard drives to the cloud), but those media don’t last forever. Sometimes the media is ok, but the reader doesn’t work. To make matters worse, even if you can read the bits, if you don’t have the software that know what the bits mean, it’s a worthless pile of bits! Digital Vellum is creating an environment where we can preserve the meaning of digital information over long periods of time, measured in hundreds of years.

That sounds like a lot of work for one guy at Google! Compared to what a lot of people do, this isn’t much.

(Cerf)ing the Internet: meet the man who helped build it
In 1997, President Bill Clinton presented the U.S. National Medal of Technology to Vint and Robert E. Kahn, for founding and developing the internet.
(Cerf)ing the Internet: meet the man who helped build it
Here’s Vint with Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Apparently they get mixed up a lot.
(Cerf)ing the Internet: meet the man who helped build it
Vint and his wife, Sigrid Cerf
(Cerf)ing the Internet: meet the man who helped build it
1974, Johannesburg, South Africa, demonstrating the ARPANET via satellite to New York.
(Cerf)ing the Internet: meet the man who helped build it
Signs put up in Europe during a push to evangelize IPv6, the most recent version of the Internet Protocol.

What do you like to do for fun? (It should be noted: When I first asked Vint this question, he excitedly told me about all of the organizations he’s involved with—he’s the Chairman of the Board of the People Centered Internet, a visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, former Chairman of the Board of ICANN, and was appointed to the National Science Board by President Obama. I pointed out that he does a lot of work outside of work—which he clearly loves—and reminded him of my particular definition of fun, to which he responded with the following).

I enjoy reading science fiction (my favorite is Isaac Asimov’s "Foundation" series), biographies and history; wine tasting and gourmet cooking; and small dinner gatherings with interesting people.

What do you consider still unaccomplished? What will you work on next? Interplanetary Internet, Inter-Species Internet, Ethics and Software, Internet Governance Policy.

With this award, you’re joining the ranks of some incredible minds—Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, to name a few. Of these winners, or anyone who has come before you in the field, who do you most admire?Alexander Graham Bell, partly because he was so fundamental to communication, and partly because his wife was deaf, and so is mine.

You travel around the world in your role. What’s the most interesting place you’ve visited recently? I went to Baku, Azerbaijan for an international security conference. It was an amazing gathering of leaders from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who offered perspectives that enriched the typical Western European views. We discussed cyber-security concerns and social and economic effects of the penetration of Internet into our societies.

Where do you want to travel next? Lyon, France—wine tasting!!!

Tell us about your formal attire—why do you remain committed to your legendary three-piece suit despite the casual nature of Silicon Valley? Mostly because I think it looks good. I’m just a 19th-century guy living in a 21st-century world.